Interview with PN's hybrids editor Matthew Gavin Frank
We met at a bar off of Highway 28 in Harvey, about 10 minutes outside of Marquette and within spitting distance of the Chocolay River, one of the local tributaries to Lake Superior. The bar, The Dry Dock, is about as beautifully “Upper Peninsula” as bars get. There is no draft beer system, and halfway through our chat, an older gentlemen played The Stanley Brothers, Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, and Dwight Yoakam on the digital jukebox. Because it’s close to home, Matt’s a frequent visitor but tends to hang on the periphery of the loyal regular-customer base to enjoy what he says is a killer (and Matt knows food) cudighi and banana pepper pizza.
About the same time that the jukebox came alive, Matt and I were discussing the undergraduate creative nonfiction course he’s teaching this semester. I learned that Matt structured the entire course around Montaigne’s collected essays and the various “covers” that have been written of them since. When I asked why, Matt said he noticed an odd trend in nonfiction students—too many had too little experience with Montaigne. He declared reading Montaigne to be reading the “grammar of the essay” and that skill is equal parts necessary, fascinating, and lovely.
Over the span of two beers (which we decided was an accurate measurement of time) we talked about favorite food spots in some of our favorite cities, the ghost that occupied one of his apartments in Phoenix, how essential seasonal depression can be to overall happiness and outlook, and the deliciousness of the essay and just how “hybrid” work is born. As I always do in conversation with Matt, I learned a pile of things about things I didn’t know I needed to know things about in the best way imaginable.
Our hybrids editor, Matthew Gavin Frank, truly has some tradition-shattering ideas about not only what a hybrid piece is, but about what genre-at-large is. Enjoy the interview, and I truly hope that you all get as much out of this as I did. —Mike Berry
Mike Berry: How would you define a hybrid? What makes them unique and why are you drawn to the idea of multiple genres?
Matthew Gavin Frank: The honest answer to these questions is: I have no idea. The less honest (and perhaps easier) answer is: Well, I suppose a “hybrid” is an artifact that agitated my expectations as to the parameters of the other genres we feature in Passages North. My own definition of “hybrid,” and the particular draw of a “hybrid,” is unique to each piece, is situation specific, bound to the context of my encounter with the submitted artifact. More often than not, the term “hybrid” as it’s applied to the work we’ve accepted for Passages North, is, for me, interchangeable with “essay.” Maybe a hybrid is simply a piece that resists easy categorization as dictated by the literary journal tradition and our often-inexplicable, yet persistent drive to comfortably shoehorn work into three easily recognizable genres for the (invented) sake of some kind of audience. Maybe it’s so hard to pin-down a definition because a “hybrid,” by definition, resists this sort of singularity.
MB: What excites you the most about a Hybrid submission for Passages North? How would you describe a “Passages North Hybrid?”
MGF: I think, maybe, it’s a piece that began as one thing (poem, memoir, flash fiction, photographic collage, et. al.) and morphed into something else, more, less… Maybe, as it morphed, the piece surprised itself with the intensity and nature of its own desires to be something else, just as it surprised me as a reader. (I’d never presume to speak to the desires of the writer). Maybe the piece was as bemused, confused, agitated and exhilarated as I was by its various successes and failures to morph into the thing it only thought it wanted to be. Sometimes a hybrid is an essay on Darwin and love and loss and evolution (to be reductive) as told from the perspective of an aging Galápagos tortoise; sometimes it’s a memoir that gets overtaken by a lyrical engagement with its research, and then shatters into line breaks in spite of itself; sometimes it’s an image-text mash-up mapped over and onto a dreamed interview with the dead; sometimes it’s a piece of conceptual art-cum-testament to obsession consisting only of punctuation and published in the form of a fold-out pin-up (the latter piece will be part of our forthcoming issue… Stay tuned). As I said: I have no idea. What I love about the hybrids we publish is that they prove how woefully inadequate my ideas are (and have been) in regards to my ability to both pin-down, and to resist pinning-down, genre.
MB: How long have you been with Passages North? Has there always been a “Hybrid” genre? When did that start? Why?
MGF: I started working for Passages North in 2011, I think? I’m horrible with knowing exactly where I was in a given year. At that time, the journal did not feature a Hybrid category (I worked as the Nonfiction Editor), but there was a changing of the guard, rife with my weird aesthetics, and the brilliance and generosity of Jennifer Howard (who took over as Editor-in-Chief just as I came on board). Between us, there was this fresh, infectious energy, complicated and italicized by the also-brilliant then-new Managing Editor, Timston Johnston, who proved to be an essential foil to me. Timston’s aesthetics were then more… well… let’s say conservative than mine and, as such, we argued endlessly and orphically about the sorts of multitudes that “nonfiction” could contain. I loved it. These arguments were so fertile, essential, and taught me quite a bit about the nature of editing. It was a hell of a dynamic. A crazy perfect storm of personalities. I remember that we received a piece by the stunning Elena Passarello (that Galápagos tortoise piece I mentioned earlier), that thoroughly seduced me, and that I believed was clearly nonfiction, but that Timston believed pushed his “nonfictional” boundaries a tad too far (though he was also rightfully seduced). After bantering about it animatedly for a few hours in my office, I think Jennifer, Timston, and I eventually threw our hands into the air and declared that we needed to launch a new category that made room for “orphans, bastards, and bumpings-and-grindings,” whatever that means…
MB: What writers, books, pieces, etc. are you reading/have you read lately that have you over the moon excited?
MGF: Judith Schalansky’s “Atlas of Remote Islands,” Sarah Vap’s “Viability,” W. Todd Kaneko’s “The Dead Wrestler Elegies,” Lauren Redniss’ “Radioactive,” Ander Monson’s “Letter to a Future Lover,” Nicole Walker’s forthcoming book, “Processed Meats,” Kazim Ali’s “Bright Felon,” Christopher Cokinos’ “Bodies, of the Holocene,” Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen,” T. Fleischmann’s “Syzygy, Beauty,” Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s “Dictee,” Patrick Madden’s “Sublime Physick,” Steven Church’s “Ultrasonic,” Elena Passarello’s “Let Me Clear My Throat,” as well as the essays from her forthcoming book, “Animals Strike Curious Poses,” and John Camp’s “Discovering Bells and Bellringing.” Just to name a few.
MB: You’ve worked a lot of different jobs through your life. Could you talk about some of the stranger ones? How did they lead to you becoming a poet first and now the genre-bending writer that you are?
MGF: Ha. I’ve had a lot of strange ones. I drove an ice cream truck around Chicago during the atrocious and infamous summer heat wave that killed nearly 800 people over the course of five days. The ice cream truck was this rickety converted mail truck, doorless on both sides, open to all that weather. The exhaust would seep into the truck through a hole that had rusted through the chassis. In 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and attendant humidity, I tooled around in that horrid jalopy, telling myself via delusions of grandeur that I was some sort of philanthropist, bringing ice cream to the people, helping them cool down. I myself was on a 12-snowcone-6-Lipton-ice-tea-bar-4-Choco-Taco-a-day fix just to keep nourished and cool. When that wasn’t enough, I would think about cool things, meditate on them with my eyes open—the kind of cool that can envelop a person, the kind of meditation that would allow me to live through the heat. I thought of the ocean, of course. Of the giants therein, swimming and suspended and surrounded by all of that larger dim cool. On a particularly blistering day, I remember tuning-out the torturous tinkling of "The Entertainer," and conjuring one of my favorite boyhood articles printed in the May 1983 issue of my second favorite boyhood magazine (after ZooBooks), Boy’s Life, which included this awesome sentence: "There are some who are convinced that species of giant squid exist that are still unknown to scientists." I think that was the way— overdosed on weather and saccharine and guar gum— the seeds that grew into Preparing the Ghost (the giant squid book), and The Mad Feast (which deals with various “un-scrumptious” aspects of food and food history) were planted.
MB: I’m almost afraid to ask, but you’ve written about marijuana farms, the giant squid, and America’s forgotten/misunderstood food stuffs. What are you writing now or what can we expect next from you?
MGF: Have no fear. I’m just working on a book-length essay about pigeons; pigeons and their role in global diamond smuggling. I’m still in the making-a-mess stage of drafting, but I’m guessing it will resemble something like Blood Diamonds bumping-and-grinding with the Audubon Field Guides.
MB: Last winter, you claimed to be adding drops of codfish liver to your gin “for health.” What’re you doing to make it through this winter?
MGF: The occasional one-handed cartwheel in my mind.